2BA Grp B seminar: Explaining Extremism

The 9/11 attacks were a defining moment of the last decade. The topic for today’s class and essay concerns how we can explain the extreme ideological motivations of the attackers and the movements which sustained them. In particular some commentators have remarked how many of those attracted to extremist terror have been well educated, often in technical subjects. The question is why would such persons be attracted to such extremism?

The Egyptian Mohamed Atta, who is widely seen as the leader of the group which carried out the 9/11 attacks, fits the bill here; he was a well trained architect, and had studied urban planning in Germany. Bizarrely, one of his pet hates was modern and western style tall skyscrapers which he viewed as inappropriate for the middle east. In attacking the twin towers he was litterally attacking not just a symbol of America but wider western culture as well. I suppose what this question invites you to explore is whether he was in fact targetting a symbol of modernity?

The essay question is a little more exact than why did such men become attracted to terror: ‘what is the relationship between modernity, higher education and ideological extremism? Critically assess Gambetta’s and Hertog’s (2009) argument.’

Understanding and reading that piece is therefore vital.

The reference to modernity in the question is a bit confusing but it does not mean merely ‘that which is new’. When sociologists use the term modernity they are refering to something as specific as say the Napolenoic period-as a historian might. I think Stuart Hall probably gives the simplest definition of what modernity is by listing four common features: a growing secular state power; a decline in religious world views and their social influence; an economic system that features industrialized production, mass consumption and money exchange; the decline of traditional social orders*

Probably the best way to take this question is more as a critique of whether the authors can sustain their argument-have they got the evidence right? Does the argument logically follow? What problems and inconsistences can one spot in their account?

Notice the question does NOT specify Islamic extremists, even though the piece is focused on them. The paper does actually also make more general claims about engineers-what are they?

Why do they focus on engineering as distinct from other subject in higher education?

Moreover, consider where did they collect their data sources from…is their data reliable?

To what extent is their explanation unique to engineers….when it seems to be defined as a clash between ‘high ambitions and high frustration‘ [p.224]. Would this not apply to many other disciplines?

On page 226, the authors speaking of Islamic [extremist] ideology, note how its ‘cocktail of tradition and modernization might have been a particulary good match for engineers’. What do you think they mean by this?

Does this suggest that ideological extremists are BOTH modernist in their outlook and yet anti-modern? How can such a paradox be resolved and what does this suggest about how you could answer the reference to modernity in the question?

*Hall, Stuart [1996] Modernity: an introduction to modern Societies. Oxford: Open University Press, p.8


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